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Although Gwen Lyle is a relative newcomer to the North American travel agent community, she’s no stranger to Asia, where she worked as a member of the U.S. foreign service for more than a decade and managed the tourism sector at the Embassy of the United States in Beijing after living for years in Singapore.
Lyle now owns Luxe Leisure, an affiliate of Montecito Village Travel in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and she spoke recently with TravelAge West about what makes the booming metropolis of Singapore an appealing visitor destination.
Why should people visit Singapore?It’s very modern and safe. And honestly, I think Singapore has the best food in the world because it has everything. Singapore is so ethnically diverse. It has fabulous Indian cuisine and Malaysian food, with fabulous satay. There's also Chinese, fresh seafood and European cuisine.
Where would you recommend people eat?Singapore has a very strict government, so the hygiene standards are very high. Therefore, you can safely eat “hawker” food (food sold by vendors at small food stands) — which is some of the best on the island and the cheapest — because you’re never going to get sick.
There are actually whole hawker centers, and they are the coolest thing because you can walk around, see what you like and then go up to a stall and say, for example, “I want the chili crab.” You point to where you’re sitting, and they’ll bring it over to you. Then, you go next door to get some fried rice, and then pick out fresh fruit juice at another stall. You go to the different stalls almost like a buffet and then have all the food you want sent to your table.
It's cheap, and it’s delicious. There are hawker centers all over Singapore, but the most famous is Newton Circus (also called Newton Food Centre), which is actually in the center of a roundabout.
There are also different parts of town where you can get good food and find unique restaurants. There’s an Arab quarter, an Indian section of town and a Chinatown. There are all of these different ethnic enclaves, and they also offer great shopping. Go to the Indian section to get jewelry, silk and sarees or go to the Malaysian section for batik fabrics. In the Arab quarter, you’ll find mosques, food and clothing. It’s a very safe and diverse place.
Of course, there’s well-known Orchard Road, which is really a popular place for visitors and just full of cafes and great shopping with all kinds of Western and Asian stuff. You name it; it’s all there.
What sort of traveler would be a good fit for Singapore?Well, again, it’s a very modern, safe place, but I think it sometimes ends up as more of a jumping off point than an ultimate destination because it’s so far away.
If you want to go to the Maldives, for example, you’d go to Singapore, spend a few days and then take Singapore Airlines directly to the Maldives. Or if you’re in Southeast Asia and going to Vietnam or Thailand, it’s a quick hop down to Singapore, which offers a really nice contrast.
Personally, I’d give Singapore a good four days because there’s a lot to do and see, but one thing to note is that it's super-hot all the time. It’s right on the equator, so it’s just hot, hot, hot — even at night.
I would see tourists who’d come and just be overwhelmed by the heat, so you typically need a little time to acclimatize and take it slowly. Once you’ve lived there, you’re fine, but it can definitely be a shock at first. I would certainly plan to take it easy the first day and not expect to get out to do lots of walking. Luckily, all the shops have air conditioning, and you can always duck out of the heat.
You mentioned how modern Singapore is. Are there older parts of town visitors can check out?For the longest time, Singapore was tearing down everything that was historic until its people realized they were destroying their own heritage, and now they have rules to save the facades of the historic areas. At Clark Quay, for example, they have saved all the facades of the buildings that were colonial because it used to be a British Colony once upon a time. So, that area has wonderful colonial architecture people can enjoy.
Are there some hotels you’d recommend?One of the most historic parts of town is back from the marina in the lower Orchard Road area, and that’s where you’ll find Raffles Hotel, which is world-famous and where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented. For me, it is just a wonderful hotel, and it’s a Virtuoso property as well. So if you book through a Virtuoso travel agent, you get some great extra amenities. And you can step back in time by going into the Long Bar, having a Singapore Sling and walking the grounds.
Another place where I personally like to stay is the Shangri La Hotel, which is off the beaten path a little bit, but a beautiful facility with orchids and swimming pools. There are almost 300 hotels in Singapore, so there’s everything and anything available.
You mentioned the strict Singaporean government, is that something visitors should worry about?Well, they’re famous for not allowing any chewing gum, and now, there’s no smoking in public areas. They banned gum in the 1980s because they just didn’t want to peel it off their sidewalks, and they don’t sell any gum there now. You can chew it if you had it already, and they’re surely not going to bother you if you’re a tourist. But they will if you litter or if you don’t put gum in the trash can.
I don’t think that's off-putting at all for tourists — unless they’re heavy gum-chewing cigarette smokers. When you're in Singapore, you don’t see the strict government. You see the structure, cleanliness and the beauty.